X-Men: First Class
Directed by: Matthew Vaughn
Written by: Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman, & Matthew Vaughn
Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, and Kevin Bacon
Following up his post-modern polarizer Kick-Ass, Matthew Vaughn has decided to make an actual superhero movie. Not only that, but he also decides to make an origin story. It’s hard not to doubt his sincerity, because he had such gleeful fun deconstructing the genre in his blood-splattered last feature.
X-Men: First Class is nowhere near as bleak and melancholy as the original two films directed by Bryan Singer. It takes place in the 60s at the height of the Cold War, with its groovy suits and groovier language. James McAvoy seems to be the only one equipped with that vocabulary, though. Waltzing onto the university scene as a physics professor who also takes shots in the bar with his students, this isn’t the dry, wheelchair-confined Professor Xavier that you’re used to.
Most of the other mutants recruited in First Class don’t make it to the other films, except of course Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). Vaughn earns major indie cred with his casting choices for those three main mutants.
Fassbender is fast becoming the next big thing, and his performance as Magneto brings touches of much needed menace and rage. Watching him in a bar in Argentina as he attempts to track down the Nazi (Kevin Bacon) who killed his mother, you can see both an action star and a gifted dramatic actor as he sits at a table with two former members of the Third Reich and dismantles their wits and then kills them with his metal-moving power.
Lawrence is also a gifted star on the rise. Even behind the thick layers of make-up as the blue transformer Mystique she achieves a performance that sticks with you. She displays more of an emotional range if less restraint than she did in Winter’s Bone, but also shows us that she may be ready for the Hunger Games films.
Aside from those three leads, the rest of the mutants are sadly forgettable or too campy. You can tell Kevin Bacon had a ball playing the main villain, as he overdoes it to such an extent that many may think this is the self-mockery of Kick-Ass on display. Sadly, it’s not. Until Magneto decides that he’s had enough playing by the humans’ rules in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the movie doesn’t get the villain it deserves, and then it’s pretty much over.
Vaughn doesn’t necessarily resurrect the franchise from the dissappointing third film and the even more disappointing “Origins” one. However, he does inject a welcome amount of pathos back into the franchise. He returns the X-Men films back to films that are principally based on ideas: ones that members of society who are different should be accepted. This is done amidst an atmosphere of war and destruction that mirrors the ideological debate even if sometimes that meaning can be lost.
First Class operates as the beginning of an alternate Civil Rights struggle, and it would be interesting to see another movie with both theirs and the African American one going on side-by-side. The Watchmen-esque idea that superheros are integral parts of history is an idea that First Class embeds somewhat convincingly into its story. Watching John F. Kennedy speak after the Missile Crisis, it’s hard not imagine him covering up the mutants’ near-extermination at the hands of the Soviets and the Americans.
Thankfully, the Cold War paranoia that many superhero films have been unable to shed even in modern settings (Iron Man 2 comes to mind first) takes a backseat in a movie that actually takes place in that time period. The Soviets get almost equal time on the screen during a critical scene where they and the Americans may both be destroyed.
It’s notes of sincerity like that that help elevate this film above mediocrity. Watching the struggles of Mystique and Beast, two mutants whose appearances are affected by their mutations, contemplate if it’s worth changing their looks to fit in may not be subtle, but it’s no less affecting.
First Class may star Mad Men’s January Jones and share its time period, but the restrained subtly of that show is largely lost in favor of a blunt social message injected with scenes of summer action. Aside from Fassbender’s startlingly good performance and some wonderfully done visual montages, Vaughn plays it by the book. At least it’s a comic book.